Discoveries of ancient artifacts sometimes catch the imagination of the general public. A few years ago, the National Geographic Society and others promoted the discovery of a fragmentary manuscript labelled the “Gospel of Judas,” supposedly presenting a very different picture of the disciple whom is portrayed by the canonical Gospels as the betrayer of Jesus. This Gospel of Judas has since been discredited as having much of value to offer us in understanding Jesus or the early church, with even the NGS sponsored translation now suspect.
This week there has been a minor hubbub concerning a small fragment of Coptic text that has been proclaimed as a fragment of a newly-discovered, formerly-lost Gospel. Coptic is an ancient language which is understood simply as the Egyptian language written using the Greek alphabet. It is a little more complicated than that, because Coptic has been influenced by Greek in more ways than just the alphabet it uses. But scholars know Coptic as the ancient language used by certain Christian sects in Egypt of the second through the fourth centuries A.D.
The most spectacular reading in this little fragment has been translated by Karen King as saying,
Jesus said to them, “My wife … [gap in text] … she will be able to be my disciple …”
This has led some to proclaim this as The Gospel of the Bride of Christ. I can testify that Karen King is a respected scholar, and she certainly would not wish to be tainted like the folks associated with the Gospel of Judas were, so I imagine this translation is about as accurate as it can be. The fragment itself is of limited value because it is so brief, and because no one is sure where it came from. But if Dr. King says it is not a recent forgery, I can accept her verdict.
Let’s suppose for a minute that this little scrap of papyrus testifies to a fact that was not preserved elsewhere in the early church: that Jesus was a married man. First, I would say that I doubt this, because the earliest testimonies (the books of the New Testament) have no hint of this, and I find it hard to believe that those authors would not have known of Jesus married status or suppressed this detail of his life. To the contrary, I think there would have been good reasons to tell this part of Jesus’ story.
But second, what if this were true? I know I will sound like one of Ross Douthat’s heretics to some of you, but the idea of Jesus having a wife does not trouble me too much. To make this an impossibility seems to be driven by theological reasons. Yet orthodox Christology would seem to make this a possibility. To deny the possibility of a married Jesus would seem to be a denial of his humanity. There was nothing evil or improper about a thirty-year old Jewish man being married. It was the norm, not the exception. Furthermore, there is also the possibility that Jesus was once married and then a widower before he began his ministry, although I find that unlikely.
More troubling would be if it was shown that Jesus was not only married but had a child. But I’ll leave that sort of speculation to Dan Brown and the lovers of The Da Vinci Code.
Nebraska Christian College